One of the biggest trends for the last few years in competitive junior groups block programming is that of “Up-and-Down.”
For those of you who might be unfamiliar, “Up-and-Down”, also known in some places as “Up-The River/Down The River”, is where you have a few adjacent courts doing pro-fed games and the winner of the game after 15-minutes moves up a court, and whoever comes in last on the court moves down. Usually, players are assigned an initial court to warm-up and after 30-minutes or so “Up-and-Down” begins. In adult circles, this format is often called “The Zone” or “The Bounce” and is done in a cardio-format, but I’m just referring to it for junior development in this article.
There are a couple of benefits to Up-and-Down. Firstly, it allows a player to practice against more than just the three (or, unfortunately, sometimes four players when there are five players on a court). This way, you can practice against a wider range of game styles. Additionally, a player can practice closer to the level of the way everyone is practicing that day. If you are really playing well and you started on a bottom court, you can keep working your way up until you hit a ceiling! It’s also a way of proving to yourself and the people in charge of assigning groups that you can handle stronger groups. If you are one of the weaker players in the drill, it can give you a chance to play with stronger players too!
Lastly, to a large degree...it’s fun! One can see how high they can move up, players interact with more people (good socially, bad Covidly) and it keeps things moving. When players are having fun they usually play better and harder. There are definitely good things about it!
From a player’s perspective, it is very difficult to work on something either technically or strategically knowing that if you keep losing you are going to be sent down a court. Practice, especially for tournament players, should be more about improvement and less about results. Up-and-Down does help keep everybody’s competitive fire going but it’s hard to slow down and work on something that you may want to work on.
Up-and-Down also takes coaching out of the equation. The focus of this format is definitely with who wins and who loses. There is no time to stop for two minutes to explain that everyone is hitting too flat or that most passing shots should be hit low. As a player, I know that if I was in last place with two minutes left, I wouldn’t want the coach to use that time to explain something, even if it had to be said. I wanted to win! Yes, a coach can give you some feedback after the game is over and you leave to go on a different court, but the coach might not be with you again that day to see your correction through so it’s kind of “top-line” instruction.
Generally, it’s understood when playing up-and-down that the job of the coach is more to be a professional scorekeeper rather than a coach. With that said, it is also much less mentally exerting (like picking up balls) for coaches and not as demanding on them.
Depending on the age it inevitably takes a couple of minutes for kids to change courts, gather their things, some coaches wrongfully check their phones, etc., and if you do up- and down for five-rounds that is 10 minutes of wasted time each session.
Lastly, if you are the very strongest in your group, it can dilute the quality of you court.
For the reasons I gave, Up-and-Down is a good thing to incorporate into your program—just not every week. In a program where the coaching quality is low, I would recommend doing “Up-and-Down” every other week and keeping fixed courts every other week. By alternating "Up-and-Down" weeks, one can get the opportunity to play to your in different levels against a variety of different players one week. The following week that player can get more “meat-and- potatoes” substance of just being on the same court with players of like ability and a coach who can show you how you improved on something during that session because you had that coach the whole time.
At a program where the coaching is at a higher level, I would limit Up- and-Down to every three-to-four weeks. This is because of the limited influence coaches have when playing up-and-down. Better coaches are truly wasting their talents in this format and junior players would benefit developmentally with their more in-depth instruction.
In my opinion, doing Up-and-Down every week is a little bit of a lazy way for clubs to avoid rational and irrational parent/player complaints regarding what court they are assigned. I know this as I sat in meetings years ago that mentioned this as a big benefit to doing “Up-and-Down”! And although the program director is choosing the format, coaches don’t mind because score keeping is pretty much a mind-numbing activity and takes little energy at the end of a long day.
Who knew “Up-and-Down” and diets during the holiday season have something in common...everything in moderation!
Ricky Becker is the Director of Tennis at the prestigious Pine Hollow Country Club for his ninth year, coaches high-performance juniors throughout the year and has been the Director of Tennis at three of Long Island’s biggest junior programs. As a player, Becker was the Most Valuable Player for the 1996 NCAA Championship Stanford Tennis team and ranked in the top-five nationally as a junior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 516-359-4843 or via juniortennisconsulting.com.